Puget Sound Energy's supply of coal-fired electric power may face a court challenge from environmental groups who want a federal judge to uphold their interpretation of the U.S. Clean Air Act.
At issue is the 2,094-megawatt Colstrip Generating Station east of Billings, Montana.
PSE - the Bellevue-based company that supplies electricity to Bellingham and the rest of Whatcom County except for Blaine and Sumas - is a co-owner of Colstrip and relies on it for 677 megawatts of its power supply. That's enough to supply about a half-million households, the company says.
The Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center have notified PSE and five other companies of their intent to sue over what their press release labels as "a serious violation of federal law and a menace to public health" at Colstrip.
The two environmental groups contend that over several years, alterations to the plant have been made without upgrading to modern pollution controls mandated by the Clean Air Act. They say their lawsuit will seek a court order mandating better pollution controls, as well as payment of penalties.
"Our lawyers and experts believe that they repeatedly made major modifications to the plant without installing modern pollution controls, thus violating provisions of the Clean Air Act known as New Source Performance Standards," Sierra Club spokesman Seth Ballhorn said in an email.
Ballhorn argued that PSE and its partners should be developing plans for the shutdown of Colstrip, instead of investing millions of dollars to keep it operating.
PSE rejects the contention that Colstrip is violating the law.
"We are not in violation of federal law," PSE spokesman Grant Ringel said. "The major construction projects at Colstrip have been pollution control projects, including a very aggressive mercury capture system."
David Klemp, air quality bureau chief at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said Colstrip's compliance with environmental laws is an open question. PPL Montana, the plant's operator, contends that the modifications that have been made were "maintenance," rather than the major modifications that would trigger more stringent new permit requirements. The environmental groups disagree.
Klemp said his state agency and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already have been reviewing complaints from the environmental groups to resolve the question.
"It's possible they needed a permit," Klemp said. "It's possible they didn't need a permit."
The complaints are highly technical and likely will take months to resolve, Klemp added. Meanwhile, the environmental groups have decided to get a federal court involved.
"They are just stepping up the complaints into a federal courtroom," Klemp said.
The parties involved already have been in court since April, 2012, when Colstrip operator PPL Montana went to a U.S. District Court judge in Billings to seek an injunction that would block the EPA from disclosing information about Colstrip to the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center.
The two environmental groups had sought the information under the Freedom of Information Act, and the EPA had been prepared to provide it until the PPL lawsuit was filed.
PPL Montana argued that public disclosure about capital improvement projects at Colstrip would be useful to its competitors "because the useful life of the individual units and likely replacement dates for capital components would be discernible ... which would allow competitors to vie for market share through aggressive pricing, and to strategically time and improve their own capital improvement processes, all to PPL Montana's detriment."
PPL Montana argued that the information EPA had obtained about the coal plant's operations was exempt from public disclosure under the "trade secrets" section of federal law.
The disclosure issue is still before the court.
PSE's Ringel said Colstrip is a valuable source of low-cost power for PSE and its customers.
"The role that Colstrip plays for our customers is keeping bills affordable," Ringel said. "The real reason Colstrip is less expensive is because these units were built in times when construction costs were lower."
The availability of coal from an adjacent mine is also a factor in keeping costs low.
Ringel said PSE has invested $1.5 billion in renewable energy sources in recent years.
Even the Sierra Club acknowledges PSE's track record on clean energy in other areas.
"Puget Sound Energy is one of our clean energy leaders," Aaron Robins, chairman of the Washington Sierra Club's energy committee, said in a press release. "We want PSE to stop wasting money on coal, and be the clean energy leader we believe they are."
ABOUT COLSTRIP GENERATING STATION
What: Power plant east of Billings, Mont.
Input: One rail car load of coal every five minutes, from adjacent mine.
Output: 2,094 megawatts.
Began: mid-1970s, with new units doubling capacity in 1984 and 1986.
Owners: Puget Sound Energy and five other Northwest power companies.
Source: PSE and PPL Montana websites
Reach JOHN STARK at email@example.com or call 715-2274.